The fight in Wisconsin over the power of public sector labor unions has sparked a nationwide conversation over the rights of organized workers. Public-sector unions have been a growing force in the United States in recent years; over the last three decades, public-sector union membership has increased, even as total unionization rates and membership have declined. Yet some regions have far higher union membership than others. A closer look at the U.S. cities with the highest unionization rates provides some more detailed insights into how and why labor unions' power varies across the country.
Labor union membership has dropped steadily in recent decades, both in terms of raw figures and percentages. In 1979, the peak year for union membership in the United States, there were nearly 21 million union members nationwide, making up 24.1 percent of workers. In 2010, union membership was estimated at 14.7 million, or 11.9 percent of all U.S. civilian wage and salary workers over 16. This drop is largely due to decreases in private-sector unionization. Meanwhile, public sector employment grew by roughly one-third during that period, and its union membership rates over the last three decades have remained between 35 and 39 percent.
Yet even alongside these drops, some U.S. cities and regions have maintained unionization rates that are two to three times the national figure. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and David Macpherson of Trinity University's Department of Economics have estimated the union membership in cities nationwide.
Below are the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest estimated union membership rates, along with their estimated union employment and union membership figures, according to Hirsch and Macpherson's calculations. The data used is from the 2010 Current Population Survey, released on January 21, 2011, and covers all employed civilian wage and salary workers, ages 16 and over.
|Metropolitan Area||Employment||Members||Membership Rate|
|Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY||494,935||123,923||25.0|
|Lansing-East Lansing, MI||186,081||43,992||23.6|
|Riverside-San Bernardino, CA||1,301,918||288,312||22.1|
Source: Union Membership and Coverage Database (available at www.unionstats.com)
Though Hirsch and Macpherson's statistics are estimates, extrapolated from sometimes small sample sizes, the results still highlight some key factors contributing to union strength in the United States. For example, the Northeast and California together account for 9 of the 10 cities in the above list. And northeastern states are also among the most unionized--New York has the highest unionization rate of all states, with 24.2 percent, and New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island also have unionization rates above 15 percent.
According to Macpherson, one reason for sharp regional differences in unionization is the existence of what are called "right-to-work laws" in some states. Twenty-two states have such laws, which state that employees cannot be required to join unions at their workplaces. These states are concentrated in the West, Southeast, and Midwest; no states in the Northeast, Rust Belt, or on the west coast have such laws.
However, says Macpherson, it would be wrong to simply assume that such laws lead to low union membership. "There's a strong relationship between right-to-work laws and low unionization. But the question is what's the causation? Did they pass right-to-work laws in states that don't like unions? Or do right-to-work laws cause low union membership?" he says. "The research suggests that they pass right-to-work laws in states that don't like unions. And as the population has moved toward these states that are traditionally non-union, that's lowered [unionization rates]."
The list of the top 10 cities also includes three state capitals, in which there are necessarily large numbers of government employees. In the metropolitan areas surrounding Albany, Lansing, and Sacramento, around one-quarter of workers were employed by the government at the state, local, or federal level as of January 2011, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. As public-sector workers have high rates of unionization, this is also a likely contributing factor to why these cities are among the 10 most unionized.